The May 2013 elections of Pakistan saw many firsts: a youth movement led by Imran Khan’s PTI ensured unprecedented levels of voter turnout (60 per cent), while Nawaz Sharif's victory was the first-ever democratic transfer of power in the country's 66-year history.
Less known is the fact that the democratic path also provided a voice to Pakistan’s minorities, who have faced intensifying bias and suffered severe hardship since 9/11 as soft targets of a hardening Muslim identity. During the elections, we saw Veero Kolhi, a freed bonded labourer, contest polls against powerful landlord interests in rural Sindh. As expected, she did not win, but nonetheless made a statement for the rights of up to eight million bonded labourers of Pakistan. Post-elections, Ramesh Singh Arora, a social worker, has become the first Sikh since 1947 to walk the corridors of Lahore’s Punjab assembly—where Sikhs comprised 20 per cent of its members in the First Legislative Assembly of Punjab elected in 1937. Though a Sikh in the Punjab legislature offers hope, it also highlights what needs to be done constitutionally and culturally to bring back 2.9 million non-Muslims, consisting mainly of Hindus and Christians, within the folds of mainstream society.
Arora joins the Punjab assembly as a nominee of Nawaz Sharif's PML(N) on one of the eight reserved seats set aside for non-Muslims. A need for seats reserved for minorities is in itself a manifestation of failure in comprehensive nation-building. Firstly, having minorities come through political appointment means that the candidates tend to be far more eager to please their party bosses than working for the upliftment of their communities. Secondly, with the reintroduction of the ‘joint electorate’ system since 2002, non-Muslims are theoretically free to run for general seats, where both Muslims and non-Muslims can vote for a candidate regardless of religion. In reality, however, the two largest parties of Pakistan, the outgoing Pakistan People’s Party and the PML(N), did not issue a single election ticket to a minority candidate. In fact, no non-Muslim has ever been elected from a general parliamentary seat in Pakistan. Since it is almost impossible to win an election without political workers and party machinery, major parties are responsible for reinforcing the notion that non-Muslims are not electable candidates.
Not having non-Muslims in general seats has in turn bred discrimination against them in the constitution. Blasphemy laws, often used to settle personal scores rather than to protect the sanctity of the religion, has become an unassailable issue in Parliament. After the assassination of former governor of Punjab Salman Taseer and minister for minority affairs Clement Shahbaz Bhatti, each of whom took a stance against blasphemy laws, representatives have decided not to debate it. The polls could have been an opportunity to elect leaders of minority communities often victimised by such laws to the House and bring legislative changes in closed sessions. But no party paid attention to the miseries of minorities, who are too few and farspread to be politically worthwhile.
Finally, Pakistani society has stereotyped minorities in specific roles that mirrors the caste systems of South Asia. Christians are relegated to menial jobs while Hindus are still seen as moneylenders, despite the fact that only a handful of Hindus in Pakistan are resourceful landlords today. Those stereotypes are further cemented by years of schooling where Christians—because they share their religion with the British—and the Hindu majority are portrayed as oppressors of Muslims during the Raj. In setting up the context for the demand for Pakistan in school history books, non-Muslims are vilified to an extent where they can no longer be seen as part of the Pakistan story.
The success of democracy offers hope and allows multiple voices to be heard. However, leaders of the minority communities and vigilant citizens from all communities need to emphasise the contribution of minorities to nation-building and demand a revamping of the constitution and textbook rhetoric to bring about some tangible improvement in the currently dismal scenario that minorities face. Only then can Pakistan truly reach its potential as envisioned by Jinnah in his celebrated first speech as the President of the Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947: “In the course of time Hindus will cease to be Hindus and Muslims will cease to be Muslims, not in a religious sense because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as the citizens of the nation.”
(Siddiq studied at Yale College and set up Hillhouse Tech)